I’ve been teaching for 13 years. I have taught for nine institutions of higher learning and have encountered at least one type of academic dishonesty at each one. No matter how many times it has happened before, each time I discover a case of plagiarism, I feel a little sick. My stomach sinks. The frustration, vexation, and disquiet get to me. I’ve battled insomnia quite a lot in the past, but lately it’s only been a problem when I’m worried about money or when I know I have to confront a student the next day. It’s happened a bunch of times this semester.
I’ve found that I generally sleep best when I feel completely prepared. I prefer to pay bills early, have a full tank of gas, and keep a large selection of postage stamps on hand. The only way to prepare for a conversation is to plan said conversation, maybe run through it a few times. The problem with playing and replaying an uncomfortable conversation in my head is that instead of making me feel prepared for it, all I feel is tense. Thrice this school year, I’ve found myself still awake at 2 a.m. (the alarm goes off at 6; I teach at 8 a.m.) because my brain would just not shut off dreading a task awaiting me the next day: telling students they were busted.
I tell myself not to take it personally. I tell myself that it has nothing to do with me, that the student isn’t trying to screw me over, that the student isn’t considering me or my time. Students who turn in plagiarized papers are thinking of themselves, of getting from Point A to Point B via the easiest possible route.
Still, it is hard to remove myself completely from the situation. In any writing class, I’m looking at drafts and offering suggestions for improvement before the essay is turned in for a grade. This is hard work. This is the heart of what I do: I foster the process of revision and work with each student individually, catering my comments toward his or her strengths and weaknesses, often keeping their majors in mind so my comments encourage them to make changes based on the norms in their fields. (It’s insulting, I’ll admit, that they don’t realize I recognize their writing style). A couple weeks ago, a student turned in a Wikipedia entry as his first draft for my comments and then, when confronted, acted like it was a perfectly logical, appropriate way to “write” a first draft of an essay. Fighting the urge to quote Judge Harm (“Don’t spit on my cupcake and tell me it’s frosting”), I instead insisted that the student obviously knew it was wrong to request a writing teacher spend her time offering feedback on a Wikipedia entry–why else would the student have inserted typos?
Three essays so far this semester came from pay cheat sites. On one, I wrote, “Not only is this a plagiarized paper, but it’s a bad plagiarized paper.”
I don’t use Turnitin. I don’t do a Google search for every paper. I only pursue the source when it’s obvious that the paper is not the student’s work. I don’t go out of my way to bust students, but when I know about it, I have to do something, in part because the student has involved me. I’m the middleman between the student and the university. It’s my integrity on the line. Asking me to look away (and they do) is like asking me to drive the getaway car after they’ve robbed my bank. Not only am I complicit, if not partially culpable, in their crime at that point, but there’s nothing in it for me to let it slide, rather, the opposite is true: I work for the University, not the students. I do not cheat my employer for my own gain, so why would I cheat my employer for a student’s gain? I wouldn’t, even an extreme situation. I’ve turned down bribes (NFL game tickets, cash) and instead of caving, I’ve reported students who have threatened me about grades (one said she’d go to my department chair with a lie about me, one suggested something might happen to my tires or gas tank). I was stalked for 4-5 months by an intimidating, angry 250-lb. student who failed my class; I’m not worried about an 18-year-old freshman sulking over an F.
Plus, there are other questions to consider: Do I want students to get credit for work they didn’t do? Do I want to send the message that cheating is no big deal? Do I want the university or department for which I teach to become jokes? In the same way I’ve cringed when cheating stories have come out at my alma mater, I hate for schools I am affiliated with to have their reputations compromised.
I’m not going to fall into the good ol’ days fallacy. I don’t know if college students are plagiarizing more now than they did in generations past (although the easy availability of materials would suggest as such). But I do know that there are two main types of plagiarists, and they haven’t changed since I was in middle school:
A) The overwhelmed student who has five finals to cram for and four papers to write and feels she can’t get it all done on her own
B) The entitled, smug, self-important brat too important to do her own work
The latter will often send long, melodramatic emailed apologies (they never bother to come to office hours) filled with hyperbole (“I know this is the worst thing I could ever do! I am soooo sorry!”) or have a parent email me (“This is not like my son. He’s a good kid and he understands what he’s done. Please give him another chance.” When that one comes up, I always want to tell the parents that it’s time to reevaluate their opinion because, clearly, he is the type of kid who plagiarizes. He just did.) When these emails don’t work on me, I’ll get hit with a guilt trip (via another email, of course) about an imminent loss of scholarship, sports eligibility, or financial aid. (Sometimes those come from the parent, too, and I want to remind them that it’s the kid who’s costing them the money, not me. Alas, thanks to FERPA, I cannot discuss the situation with them at all).
What I do say to these students is that I am adhering to the University’s policy regarding academic honesty. What I want to say (in addition to the cupcake line) is that they took a gamble but lost, so now they have to deal with it.
And now I have to change the way I deal with it: Effective immediately, I’ll use Turnitin. I will collect essays electronically. All papers will be presumed plagiarized until proven legitimate. It bums me out that it’s come to this, but hopefully it’ll be a deterrent. Hopefully, fewer students will take the gamble.